Words by Richard Fleury
Pictures courtesy of Edward Vinson Ltd
For Faversham farmers, the price of getting Brexit done is losing the thousands of hard-working and reliable Europeans they rely on to bring in harvests. Instead, local apples and strawberries may soon be picked by immigrants from Africa or India.
With the clock ticking on continued access to EU labour, UK farms desperately need to import tens of thousands of seasonal pickers from all over the world. In the next few years, workers from as far afield as Ukraine, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco, and even India or Nepal could prove a lifeline for Faversham's growers.
To allow them in, the Government must quickly introduce a new seasonal workers' visa scheme. Until it does, growers face an unprecedented labour crisis.
Each year, the UK fruit and veg industry needs 60-80,000 seasonal workers. In recent years, 75 percent have come from EU members Romania and Bulgaria. That labour supply will inevitably dry up when freedom of movement ends this December. They are already staying away. European worker numbers fell more than 30 percent in 2019, largely because of Brexit.
There are a dozen farms within a ten mile radius of Faversham. Between them, they employ around 3500 seasonal workers each year. Meanwhile, visas are currently limited to just 2,500 non-EU agricultural workers across the entire UK. It doesn't take a mathematician to see a disaster looming.
Unpicked fruit is already rotting in fields. Some 16 million apples went to waste last season through lack of pickers, according to the National Farmers Union. Here in the Garden of England, Faversham farmers have abandoned whole fields full of perfect produce because they don't have enough staff to harvest it.
“In terms of food waste, it's terrible.”says Doug Amesz, whose Faversham-based company AG Recruitment supplies thousands of overseas workers to a hundred UK growers every year. “I've seen it visiting farms and thought: 'What's happened there?'”
Fifth generation Faversham fruit farmer Sean Figgis is managing director of Edward Vinson Ltd. “We haven't – touch wood – got to that stage,” he says “But it's pretty serious for us.”
Based on the Graveney Road, Edward Vinson Ltd has been growing fruit around Faversham for more than a hundred years.
The business has depended on seasonal labour from the start. Local workers walked to the farm from Faversham until the 1930s, when they were picked up by lorry. From the 1950s through to the 1970s more than 500 fruit pickers – mainly housewives with preschool children – were collected from Faversham, Whitstable, Herne Bay and Sittingbourne by a fleet of trucks and buses. Over the past 20 years, as the whole industry became more regulated, professional and intensive, the farm has recruited its staff from within the EU.
Sean is now stuck in limbo, with no choice but to wait for the Government to address the problem it created. “Until we get an announcement, we can't expand,” he says. “Everybody needs staff: the factories, the caterers. It's not just our farming industry. Every rich nation is really reliant on someone underneath it coming in to do the manual work. “
Faversham's economy will inevitably feel the knock-on effects of an agricultural labour crisis.
“We go to Tescos in Faversham three or four times a week. So they're going to lose out of 300-400 customers,” says Sean. “All the stuff we buy is from local shops, the packaging people, fencing. With less income coming in they'll be paying less taxes. We've got 30 vehicles that get serviced at a local garage. If we get rid of them all he won't have the business.”
Why are European workers increasingly choosing not to work in Britain?
“The shortage is driven by two things: government policy and the impact of Brexit,” says the National Farmers Union's horticulture board chair Ali Capper.
Firstly, the dramatic post-Brexit referendum fall in the pound means eastern European workers earn more in Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.
“We're already battling with devaluation of sterling,” explains Doug Amesz. “Overnight in 2016 we saw a drop in interest in coming to the UK because it is very much an economic decision when people are looking for seasonal work.”
“Lots of young Bulgarians are going to Germany because the exchange rate makes it very attractive,” says Sean Figgis who, like many farmers, offers workers well above UK national minimum wage. “We do pay some very good money. Some of ours – the fast ones – will be earning £12 an hour.”
Meanwhile improving Romanian and Bulgarian economies mean many people simply no longer need to seek short-term manual work abroad, especially in England, where they feel increasingly unwelcome and insecure.
Increasingly for Doug Amesz, whose company has offices in both countries, recruiting is about “convincing people they are wanted and the UK isn't anti-immigration”.
“That's what's in the back of people's minds,” he says. “How's their experience going to be and how are they going to be treated?”
Bulgarian-born Krasimira 'Krasi' Chakarova is in charge of recruitment at Edward Vinson Ltd. She says: “Last year we had people who passed interviews and we wanted to offer them a job but they said it's very unclear what will happen with Brexit, so no thank you. People don't feel confident and that stops them from coming.”
Following the lead of German and Spanish farmers – which hire from Ukraine and Morocco respectively – UK farmers are calling for the Government to open the borders to allow massively increased numbers of non-EU workers into the country on short-term, seasonal work visas.
“We are the only country in the EU that relies on EU migrant labour. Elsewhere in Europe you’ll find Ukrainian and even Nepalese pickers. That’s the answer,” say's the NFU's Ali Capper.
Kent voted for Brexit. Fifty-nine per cent voted leave compared with 51.9 per cent nationally. Ironically, for many it was a vote against immigration, especially from eastern Europe.
“People were thinking it was taking their jobs,” says Sean Figgis. “No, most of that labour was doing the jobs that English people wouldn't do.”
“There is an immigration debate but seasonal labour for farms shouldn't be part of it,” says AG Recruitment's Doug Amesz. “That's a mix-up. There's no question UK farms require this labour. It's serving a good purpose. They come into the country, they contribute to the economy and they leave. They are not in any way a drain.”
Eastern European workers helped build British fruit growing into a huge industry that contributes around £2 billion a year to our economy.
“It's a hell of a lot of money,” says farmer Sean Figgis. “It's a big risk the Government are taking if they're not going to provide enough staff. You can't make a robot pick a strawberry.”
Sean normally employs 1,000 mostly Romanian and Bulgarian workers every year to bring in 3,000 tonnes of fruit from April and October each year. “The eastern Europeans are wonderful. They're brilliant people. We wouldn't have a business without them,” he says.
Did Kent's fruit farmers vote for Brexit and its consequences? Sean thinks local farmers were split down the middle on the Brexit vote. “I would guess it would be about 50 percent,” he estimates. “But it's not the kind of thing you talk about!”
“I know a lot of people voted out but I'm a remainer,” he says. “What's the most important thing for me? Labour. But we're out. It has gone badly for me but we've got to make the most of it now.”
Kent is renowned for the quality of its fruit, accounting for a significant slice of the country’s production. Nearly half of English 'top fruit' – such as apples and pears – is grown here, along with 40% of English soft fruit, such as strawberries and raspberries. Vinson's is world-famous for breeding its own soft fruit varieties.
“We're all trying to eat healthier and we grow this product which is very good for you and now we're going to have trouble picking it!” says Sean.
His recruitment manager Krasi has already started hiring for Summer 2020. But early indications are worrying. “Compared to last year and the year before there is very little interest for new people to come. It is very difficult,” she says.
Three years ago there were four applicants for every UK fruit-picking job. British agricultural recruiters once had their pick of fit, young, skilled workers from Romania and Bulgaria. They even used dexterity tests to select the quickest. Now it's the opposite. One worker has four jobs to choose from.
“We used to recruit students only. Now we have 18-year-old boys and 50-year-old men,” says Krasimira.
Vinson's is a part of Asplins Producer Organisation, a Faversham-based fruit producing, packing and marketing co-operative. With 11 members across the UK, Asplins sells £100 million of fruit nationally.
Chris Rose is its commercial controller. “The calibre of workers has fallen significantly,” says Chris. “It used to be students who were hungry to earn, now older, less motivated workers with little or no English. Many are happy to work at a slow steady pace for minimum wage rather than hard for more money and often they leave without warning when they have earned ‘enough’.
After the 2016 Leave vote, then Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom said she hoped young Brits would take up jobs as fruit pickers. In reality, just one percent of seasonal farm workers are UK natives. The latest NFU data suggests there could be as few as 300 British strawberry pickers.
“We struggle to get anyone English to commit to picking,” says Sean Figgis. “It's seen as a difficult job. Shelf stacking in Tesco is seen as a lot easier. We could advertise and get nobody.”
While zero hour contracts and the gig economy have helped reduce unemployment figures to a 40 year low, the Universal Credit system can deter people from taking temporary work.
Asplins' Chris Rose explains: “In the main fruit growing areas, unemployment is at historic low levels, which in practice means the unfit for physical work and the unemployable. A number of growers have tried using local labour and found it impossible to recruit and if they do find people, they only tend to last a few days.
“Whilst there may be suitable people in northern cities,” he adds, “They do not want to come off benefits for a seasonal job hundreds of miles away from home.”
So, where will Kent's fruit producers find their post-Brexit labour force?
After intense lobbying from farmers' groups, in 2018 the UK government announced a two-year pilot programme to bring non-EU migrant workers a year to work on British farms for up to six months.
The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) allowed in just 2,500 workers across the entire country for the whole of 2019: barely enough to run a couple large fruit farms.
With 60-80,000 needed, the pilot is “completely insufficient” says Doug Amesz, who describes it as “Theresa May throwing the industry a bone”.
“We need the Government to scrap it and get on with a fully functional replacement with significant numbers in excess of 30,000 immediately,'” he says.
Before December's General Election, farmer Sean Figgis urged Faversham and Mid Kent MP Helen Whately to deliver on a Conservative manifesto promise to extend SAWS visas to 10,000 more foreign workers.
“She said 'If you vote for me you'll get your 10,000'. I've heard nothing since. But
10,000 plus the original 2,500 is not going to go very far.” says Sean, whose farm alone needs 1,000 workers each season.
The current scheme is a reintroduction of the SAWS scheme scrapped by David Cameron’s government in 2013.
“At the time it was felt that labour from the EU was plentiful and that we didn't need it,” says Dough Amesz. “A number of people in the industry said that was a mistake and they were right.
Among them was the National Farmers Union. “We warned then that there would be labour shortages within five years and that’s exactly what has happened,” says Ali Capper.
Originally introduced at the end of World War II, SAWS visas enabled farmers to bring in pickers and packers from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.
“It was so regulated,” says Sean Figgis. “They came in on that date and they had to leave on that date. And probably one percent went into the underground London labour market. That's how it used to be and that's how it's got to be done in the future.”
Of course not all migrant workers return home for good or vanish into Britain's grey economy. Some settle here, put down roots, pay taxes and become English; like Vinson's own recruitment manager, Krasi Chakarova. Krasi first came to Faversham on a seasonal visa 15 years ago as a 19-year-old student. She spent several summer holidays here, picking fruit, improving her English and saving money for a car. “I felt safe and very welcome,” she says. “It was a good opportunity; to spend six months in England then go home and keep studying.” Offered a permanent job at Vinson's after university, she came back to work full-time and now, married with two children, she's part of the local community.
When the Government abolished SAWS visas seven years ago, immigration was already a hot political issue. As numbers of eastern European workers arriving in the UK rose, so did the temperature of the anti-immigration rhetoric from tabloid newspapers and populist politicians. Sentiments they stirred up as part of the campaign to leave Europe remain a problem, both for the farming industry and the Government itself.
“That racism or anti-immigration feeling will pick up if you're bringing in Syrian refugees to pick fruit for six months. That will get even worse,” says Sean Figgis.
But why after cutting off the lifeblood of a £2 billion British industry, is the Government still doing so little, so late? It's not as if it wasn't warned. Again, it comes back to immigration, Sean thinks.
“Because immigration's seen as the thing that's so important in Brexit. So the Government are hardly going to say “Let's bring in more immigrants.” They've got to do it quietly. They've got to keep the popular vote and that is anti-immigration.”
In an ironic twist, one of Faversham's longest-established fruit growers expanded into Europe, just before Britain voted to leave. To spread its financial risk at that uncertain time, Edward Vinson Ltd bought a farm in Bulgaria in 2015.
“The minute Brexit came along a year after, it proved to be quite a key decision,” says Sean, who employs 120 seasonal workers to pick ten million plants and a crop of blueberries in a valley south of Sofia. But even in Bulgaria, labour shortages mean half his workforce is flown in from Ukraine. “It's not just Faversham or England!” he says with a weary smile. “Every country around the world has that knock-on effect.”
European workers: Not coming over here, not taking our jobs.